Monday 18 December 2017

Daniel McDonnell assesses the chances of Martin O'Neill's fringe players ahead of squad chop

Stephen Quinn is just one of a number of players keen to impress tomorrow night.
Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Stephen Quinn is just one of a number of players keen to impress tomorrow night. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The Ireland players will return to training today after being given the weekend off by Martin O'Neill, which allowed them to catch up with their nearest and dearest.

For several members of the squad that are aiming for involvement in tomorrow's friendly with Slovakia, the target now is to ensure they have more than family time to look forward to at the end of their club season.

O'Neill has said he will wait until after the friendly with Holland on May 27 before confirming his panel for the Euros, so this is not the final game that will shape his 23-man selection.

There comes a point, however, where the Derryman will have to concentrate on the issues that will determine his starting XI - and, therefore, it would be a surprise if he went into that Dutch game with the same mindset that guided a relatively experimental selection for the Friday defeat of Switzerland.

Come the summer, identifying the ideal centre-half pairing will be higher up the priority list than settling on the best fourth-choice option.

It means there are players in the mix for the Slovakian game that are in the last chance saloon if they are to make a point about their French credentials.

Paul McShane

McShane's last Irish outing was an 18-minute cameo in the friendly with England last June. Since then, he has secured a move to Reading - where he is club captain - and, following an up-and-down spell with Hull City, the centre-half is in a good place at the moment.

The problem from an Irish perspective is that he's behind John O'Shea, Richard Keogh, Ciaran Clark, Marc Wilson and possibly even Shane Duffy after he impressed on Friday. He got a late call before Euro 2012, and needs to make a giant step forward to push into the picture this time around.

Alex Pearce

Like McShane, he will be worried if he is not given an outing tomorrow night. At the start of the campaign, he was arguably ahead of Clark and Duffy and in the same bracket as Keogh. The 27-year-old's exit from Reading actually opened the door for McShane to go there, but he chose badly - as Derby didn't offer first-team opportunities. Keogh staying was a major obstacle.

He went on loan to Bristol City, having failed to make a league appearance, and is stuck on their bench at the moment. O'Neill and Roy Keane have always given the impression they rate him, but he's in a spot of bother

Alan Judge

He was given a chance on Friday and was unable to take it, so he will be desperate to get another go in a system that is better suited to his strengths.

Judge generally plays as a No. 10 at Brentford - a Wes Hoolahan-type role - and a wide berth at the Aviva in a 4-4-2 was a struggle for him. O'Neill observed that he spent a lot of time concentrating on chasing back and covering ground as opposed to finding promising attacking positions.

At this juncture, it would be a straight forward decision to leave Judge out of the 23 and mark him down as a viable option for September. A brighter showing might alter the debate, but there's a big squad looking for minutes - and he got 90 on Friday.

Rob Elliot

The Newcastle stopper will start and his protracted run in the side at Premier League level has led to the assumption that he will be part of the three-man goalkeeping team. There's strong logic behind that argument, but it's worth remembering that Elliot only has three caps and hasn't featured since November 2014.

Darren Randolph is a banker to travel and, with Keiren Westwood out of favour, the other major players are Shay Given and David Forde. If Elliot looks at home at the Aviva then it could leave O'Neill with a straight choice between the two long-term squad members. However, an injury for Stoke keeper, Jack Butland, in Germany on Saturday has provided Given with another incentive to get back fit - and a Premier League return for the veteran would add intrigue to the battle. Elliot may still have a bit to do to cement his position.

Anthony Pilkington

Keith Andrews gave the Cardiff player a strong mention on Newstalk over the weekend, pointing out that he can offer a goalscoring threat from wide areas - which sets him apart from the alternatives. Pilkington was absent from Switzerland because of an injury, and his ongoing struggles with his fitness mean there is a risk attached with including him.

O'Neill has acknowledged that's an entry in the 'cons' column when assessing his case and he would have to do something special to seriously enter the equation. It's a shame, because the 27-year-old is clearly talented. Pilkington has even filled in as a striker this season and, with Kevin Doyle, Robbie Keane, Jon Walters and Daryl Murphy out of the game, he could add another string to his bow.

Stephen Quinn

The diminutive midfielder was the shock inclusion for the campaign opener in Tbilisi and was also picked away to Germany in Gelsenkirchen, where he was an additional body in midfield. He was set a tough task against Switzerland in a two-man engine room with David Meyler.

A long lay-off ruled him out of the autumn drama and euphoria, and the danger was that out of sight meant out of mind. It must have been a confidence boost to be selected on Friday, yet a place in a three-man midfield would be a better advertisement for his strengths. Competition in his department may hinder his ambitions for another run-out.

Stephen Ward

The fact that Ward is back in the Burnley side puts him in a very strong position, and O'Neill clearly regards him highly. As it stands, he appears to be the alternative to Robbie Brady at left-full, and that should be enough to secure a ticket for Versailles.

That said, Marc Wilson can cover at left-full too and the potential worry for Ward is that, while he has a background as a striker and left-winger, his Irish contribution has pretty much been restricted to one position. He should be ok, but he wouldn't want this opportunity to pass without showing that he's a different animal with a run of games under his belt.

Cyrus Christie

Similar to Ward, he's more in than out at the moment, but the perception that he is a man that can only cover one position is what might make him vulnerable.

Seamus Coleman will always play barring emergency, whereas moving Brady from left-full could be a possible tactical shift - so it's not beyond the realms of possibility that O'Neill would consider Meyler as the back-up right-full. Wilson can slot in there too.

Christie did well in the autumn and will be hoping that Coleman is rested tomorrow.

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